When Dracula released at the Roxy Theater in New York, on February 12, 1931, no one could have guessed how huge of a box office sensation it would become. Even the cleverly crafted “fainting” rumors orchestrated by nervous executives, hoping to induce some natural sense of morbid curiosity, was unnecessary. According to film historian Michael Fitzgerald, within the first 48 hours of Dracula’s release, the Roxy Theater had sold over 50,000 tickets (Universal Pictures: A panoramic history in words, pictures, and film). Horror had just become mainstream. Dracula’s acclaim paved the way for the other classics we’ve grown to love, our Universal Studios Monsters, such as: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman, each owing their existence to the success of one film.
The era of (what we’d call today classic) Universal Studios is one of most interesting bits of Americana cinematic history. Why? The roar of the 20’s was coming to an end and the decade that had ushered in high booms would eventually end in the same dramatic fashion. The Stock Market Crash, also known as “Black Tuesday,” on October 29th, 1929, while still under much debate among certain historical circles, we can say that following the panic fire sells of stocks, America went into the greatest depression she, thus far, had ever known. By March 1930, 3.2 million people would be unemployed (see PBS for credible timeline). And while Americans were growing uncertain regarding the future in the face of food riots, strikes, and lamentable upheaval, even more uncertainty was developing on the horizon.
Beginning in 1928, against the backdrop of Germany’s (and all of Europe, really) almost two decade long depression and the peoples utter discontent with what they considered a failure with Wiemar Democracy, the Nazi Party (The National Socialist Party) slowly began taking over the Reichstag (Reichstagsgebäude). Fascism was darkening the cloud over the Atlantic. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. By 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were established, and by 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, World War II began.
This is just a brief look at the world during the era of Universal Horror. Only with the “luxurious logic of hindsight” (Ronnie Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg.116) can we contemplate why executives were nervous over Dracula’s success in the first place. The very world was in turmoil. What better escape than a simple drive to the movies? And for the silent and black & white era, “going to the movies” was no humbug experience. Especially for theaters such as Roxy, in New York. The Roxy was a Grand Theater, a “Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” Going to the movies to see Dracula was not the same experience as going to the movies today, to say the least. Going to the movies during the 20’s and 30’s was like going to the Opera in today’s standards. Folks dressed up for cheap tickets and excellent performances. And live orchestras opened the night before the large velvet curtain pulled away revealing the traditional white projection screen underneath. Going to the movies, was going to the show.
As a film, Dracula is still, in my humble opinion, scary. The fact that the movie is, in its own way, still disturbing stresses something important about the kind of story being told. A horror story playing on fears realized in the hearts of folks told since the first campfire. Dracula was so good and still is (though, i’d argue for socially different reasons) because it plays on our fears of the foreign invader, fears of madness, fears of hierarchical purity (Nazi Germany called this: Volksgemeinschaft; the United States called it: eugenics), fears of the unknown, fears of losing freedom (especially the freedom of choice), and fears of death.
One of the greatest (of many) appeals for Dracula was its quality of acting. While Dracula was Bela Lugosi’s signature role, a role he played beautifully, my favorite was Dwight Frye’s portrayal as Renfield. Watching the movie, even now 82 years later, Renfield gives me the chills. His sensibility as Dracula’s minion, a raving lunatic, was delivered with pure genius. Especially during the scene aboard the Vesta, when the London longshoremen discover Renfield hiding below, the look on his face looking up at them is, to say the least, disturbing.
Bottom Line: Dracula is the grandfather of modern mainstream horror. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you really ought to give it a go. Don’t be shied away because of the black and white picture, this isn’t a completely artsy film; its a completely human film with real human fears, both then and now. If you are planning a Halloween horror movie marathon or hosting some other macabre party, considering adding Dracula to you’re list. You will not be disappointed.
October 23, 2013 | Categories: History, Horror | Tags: Americana, Bela Lugosi, Bride of Frankenstein, Classics, Dracula, Dwight Frye, History, Horror, Reichstagsgebäude, Renfield, Universal Studios, Volksgemeinschaft | Leave a comment